“So, how much time have you actually spent with this guy?”
Halfway through fall break, I am back in Roanoke with my friend Griffin. We are both crashing at a friend’s apartment for the night, and he is getting the scoop on Dan, who would be arriving in a few hours.
“Ummmmm, maybe like, nine hours?”
“And you’re about to go backpacking alone with him for three days?!”
“Yeah… I know it sounds crazy. It is crazy. And I am a little nervous. But it feels right, and I’ve gotta see him again sometime. He’s worth the risk.”
When I returned home from studying abroad last December, reconnecting with my recently-engaged friends Maddy and Thomas was near the top of my homecoming list, and it took less than a day for me to wind up back in Thomas’ living room. Ranting about my struggles to find someone to thru-hike part of the Appalachian Trail with me, Thomas offhandedly says Dan is the type of person that would do that. Apparently Dan was one of Thomas’ roommates from college, and, as it so happened, he was driving into Charleston that evening. Thomas’ head bops up. Eyebrows raised, he turns to Maddy. “Dan and Jessica. That has a lot of potential.” I don’t blush often, but that comment took me off guard, and I could feel the rosy heat rushing to my face.
A few minutes later, wearing a grey Clemson sweatshirt, khaki pants, and tennis shoes, Dan walks in. He looks tired from driving and doesn’t say too much. His short haircut accentuates the way his ears stick out a little bit, but he is tall and handsome; he has a nice way about him. I learn that he has a job set up after graduation in May, but he asked for seven months off first to go travel the world, and his bosses agreed. Thomas’ matchmaking inevitably encouraged me take some interest anyway, but I’m a sucker for a traveler. Still, I did not say too much to him that weekend. I never mastered the art of flirting.
Dating Dan could have been a fleeting consideration, the possibility coming and going with his own very brief entry to and exit from Charleston – and my life – that weekend. But we got connected on Facebook and Instagram, and the power of social media should not be discredited. For the next seven months, Dan was an enigma, a stranger I hardly knew at all, but I couldn’t totally forget about him, either. He liked almost all of my pictures, and when he headed off to Hawaii in May, his Instagram ascended to one of the coolest accounts ever. Every few days, he would post another ridiculous picture of camping next to a volcano or alpine mountaineering on Mount Hood.
Who IS this guy?! I often found myself wondering.
iPhone in hand, I would approach my sister. “Hey RoRie, wanna see something cool?”
Rolling her eyes, she would ask, “Jess, is this another one of Dan’s pictures? You don’t even KNOW him!”
True, I did not know him, but I started crushing pretty hard on this mystery man. Midway through his trip, I knew he would be making his way back to Charleston to be a groomsman in Maddy and Thomas’ summer wedding. By the time July rolled around, I was just ready to pull my thoughts out of the clouds and get to know the real Dan. I knew we shared the same faith and love of adventure, but that was all I knew. What about his personality and passions? His quirks and flaws? 51% of me needed to find out if there was any mutual interest, or if I should get over him. Simultaneously, the other 49% felt like a fifteen year-old girl who wanted to run far, far away.
Though Maddy and I never talked about Dan, she had been scheming since December to set us up. We were both a little shy, and we only had a few short conversations over the course of the pre-wedding festivities, but low and behold, our seat placements were not-so-coincidentally next to each other at the rehearsal dinner, and the conversation flowed pretty naturally.
He shared his story of being a fake Christian through high school and the start of freshman year. God transformed him that year, and he has been passionate about sharing the real Jesus with people ever since then. He genuinely cares about other people, and he has a gentle trustworthiness about him that makes people want to open up. His post-graduation travels started selfishly, but he began blessing others by genuinely getting to know them, asking about their spiritual journeys and listening to their struggles. There are not enough normal-yet-bold Christians in the world, but Dan is one of them. His faith spurs me on to grow closer to the Lord myself.
After one heck of a wedding, I was rockin’ it out on the reception floor by myself like I always do. Eventually Dan made his way over to dance with me. He’s got rhythm y’all. A few dances later, he worked up the courage to ask me on a date the following day.
Between the time on the back porch sipping on mojitos with my family, brunch, and swimming in the pond at Sugah Cain, it was pretty much seven hours of the most Perfect Day Ever.
And then he flew to China.
When he wasn’t off the Wi-Fi grid, we caught up over FaceTime. The thought of spending more than thirty minutes on the phone with anyone used to sound like a massive feat to me. Talking to Dan in two-hour chunks every week or two as he made his way through Hong Kong, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Oktoberfest, London, and Iceland brought me some of the greatest joy in my whole week.
In the months following that date, I no longer solely followed Dan through Instagram; he had already shared the wild stories associated with each picture he posted with me. Dan the enigmatic stranger became Dan in Real Life. It is funny because that is also the title to my favorite movie, but that actually became his official name in my family.
“Dan slept underneath a bus seat last –“
“Dan, Hoffa, Dan Telsey.”
“You mean, Dan in Real Life?”
Exasperated, I concede, “Yes, Hoff, Dan in Real Life.”
Mid-October, Dan finally returned home, and I powered through to fall break. We decided to go backpacking together, followed by a visit to his home in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
Hoffa gave Dan the stamp of approval back in July, but you wanna guess what my protective father had to say about visiting his parents?
“That’s ridiculous! Why would you do that? You don’t need to do that!”
No, I think, but he did get to meet you already. It’s only fair, really.
Nerves aside, our reunion made me the happiest I have been in a while (and I consider myself a pretty joyful person). I mean, I could have done without the handlebar moustache, but Dan knows how to have fun with his facial hair. We headed down to Grayson Highlands, known for “wild” ponies and Mount Rogers, the tallest, yet rather anticlimactic, mountain in Virginia. As burnt-orange leaves crunched under our steps, we managed to complete a three-day hike in a day and a few hours, and over the course of the 25-mile loop, the conversation never stopped.
With our extra time, we headed up to Roanoke to break up the drive a bit and camped near the base of McAfee Knob. At the last minute, we decided to wake before dawn, night hike to the summit, and watch the sun’s majestic morning rays penetrate the darkness.
When we made it to Philly, I really enjoyed Dan’s family, too. They are loud and boisterous in a different way from the Compton Clan, but the same kind of love is there, which is what matters most. By the end of the weekend, I was officially dating Dan in Real Life. I’m not really sure how I landed such a catch. After so many months of wondering who Dan even was, it is often still hard for me to believe. It also feels right, though. Really right. Despite the challenge of long distance, we’re having a blast.
I must close with a final comment from my father. Freshman year, as Hoffa, ever the Southern gentlemen, moved his eldest daughter onto a campus with a large New England student body, he looked at me soberly and acquiesced, “Well Jessica…I guess…if he’s a good one… you can date a Yankee.” At the time I internally scoffed and sarcastically thought to myself, Well thank you so much, dear father.
But Dan is a good one, one of the best, I think, and I could not be happier to call him my boyfriend.